Superintendent: Trumbull schools need more funding

TRUMBULL — Adequate funding is needed in order to build up the town’s schools, Superintendent Martin Semmel said this week during a joint meeting of the Board of Finance and town council’s Finance Committee.

Semmel said the schools had two major goals for the 2021-22 fiscal year — rebuilding from last year’s financial shortfall and resolving some structural issues that were identified earlier this year in an operational review of the Board of Education.

Those two goals cannot be accomplished, according to Semmel, given the 3 percent budget increase that First Selectman Vicki Tesoro recommended in her 2021-22 budget proposal.

“The difference (between Tesoro’s allocation and the school board’s 3.81 percent request) is $886,501,” Semmel said. “We do think that a 3 percent budget, certainly in a normal year, a 3 percent increase, would actually be seen as very favorable, so I certainly appreciate that. But to accomplish our two major goals for the year, we don’t see how that can work.”

In a 20-minute Zoom presentation, Semmel said the proposed new positions in the school budget request were, for the most part, roles that had been eliminated in the previous school year or were due to unfunded mandates.

“We used to have 13 literacy specialists. That was reduced to eight for 2021. We’re looking to add back just one,” he said. “Same thing with math interventionists. There were 6.5 (full-time equivalent positions). That was reduced to 3.5, and we’re looking to add .5 positions back in. So you can see we’re not trying to over-rebuild, we’re just trying to be responsible.”

The operational review had also recommended having a dedicated human resources director, which Semmel included in the budget. And the schools also had eliminated six teaching positions due to projected enrollment declines.

“We think we’ve been very judicious about positions we’ve added back and we’ve reduced positions where enrollment numbers indicated we could,” he said.

Semmel also discussed the school transportation program. Last year, with the COVID-19 shutdown eliminating the need for school bus service, the town received a $917,000 credit for services not rendered. That money was allocated to other expenses in the current year’s budget.

“That essentially kicked a $1 million can down the road,” Semmel said. This year that so-called funding cliff, plus another $56,000 in incremental cost increases, had to be factored back into the budget, he said.

“So, 0.84 percent of our 3.81 percent increase is just transportation. If not for this .84, we would be right there with the first selectman request,” he said.

Questions for the school officials tended to focus on the school system’s fiscal recovery after last year’s budget crisis. Finance board member Martin Isaac and others sought a firm commitment that the school administration would spend within its allocation. Isaac also addressed the deficit spending that had caused the school system’s budget crunch.

“I understand we are stopping increasing the deficit, but what is the plan of action to close out the deficit?” he asked.

Business Administrator Paul Hendrickson said the issue had not yet been discussed, and that the decision would ultimately be up to the Board of Education.

The schools also could dedicate any budget surplus at the end of this year to paying off the accumulated shortfall, he said.

“If there is a surplus we would ask to transfer some of that to cover these ongoing deficits,” he said.

Semmel also held out hope that a federal stimulus package would provide some relief. The stimulus proposal in Congress would likely include relief payments to municipalities. Some of those funds could be used to provide financial assistance to the schools, he said.

“There’s a lot in play,” he said. “You may see it in your heart to use it in different ways.”